Title: France’s got Talent : The woeful consequences of French elitism
Author: Peter Gumbel
I have been sitting on this review for a while. Whilst I really enjoyed Peter Gumbel’s book, in it giving me a whole new understanding of some of the workings of the french education system, it left me hungry for more.
Peter Gumbel writes of his experiences as the Communications director of Sciences Po, under the then director of the university Richard Descoings, who was a fire-brand and controversial anti-elitist figure. He covers the differences in teaching methods of french tertiary institutions and how they often do not allow for as much debate as say American institutions; the hierarchical structure amongst the teaching staff; the elite nature of the Grand ´Ecoles and how they have been, are, and will remain the breeding ground for France’s ruling class. But moreover he points to the fact that the elitism in France is, by international standards, not normal.
What Peter Gumbel writes about is nothing new really. Ivy league institutions or universities that rank higher on league tables are more often than not the source of talent for political or corporate institutions. It happens all over the world. He does point out though that there is an entrenched elitism in it all, which excludes the more disadvantaged parts of the French population. He dispels the notion of France as a meritocracy, and criticises what he sees an an entrenched elitism throughout the country, and one that has no real champions who want to change it.
Whereas in other parts of the world having talent and the ability to pay can get one into elite higher education institutions, in France only 5% of students make it into the highly selective and prestigious Grand ´Ecoles. The culling of students is so severe from an early age – high school for many- that life trajectories are almost decided before students have reached a voting age. The system works in such a way that non-performance can decide one’s future by the time they write their Bac, leading then to either the general Bac – which offers more opportunities of higher education, or to the vocational one – from which point on the opportunities to rise beyond what what has already been determined disappear. No real difference from the rest of the world one might say, but the author points to the fact that there is such a resistance to change, and such a determination to maintain the status quo amongst these institutions that they fail to acknowledge the fact that the French population demographics have changed so much that the institutions need to also change accordingly to be more representative of the population.
On this I was not too clear on how this could be effected because this would require more than just changing the rigorous entrance requirements. French children whose parents have no means to send them to the Post –Bac Grand Ecole prep schools (classe préparatoires) have no chance to ever enter those institutions.This is determined by both the lack of economic means to do so, and also by the fact that there some schools, especially those that serve lower-income populations, are not sufficiently resourced to ensure that their Bac students can leave with the grades that will allow them entry into the prep schools. On this Peter Gumbel does not provide a clear explanation on how a change could be effected.
The book intersperses Gumbel’s experiences at the Sciences Po with his thoughts on the workings of the political and corporate elite of France. He likens France to a reality show that does not value a multitude of different talents. This quote from his first chapter sums up his sentiments of the system and of the elite French ruling class:
The winners tend to be similar. They go to the same schools, come from the same social background and reach the top by passing exams for which they have been prepped from an early age. Unfortunately, the contest is bad for the nation as a whole. The chosen aren’t always the best suited for the roles they are given, while the losers are marked for life. The entire contest is flawed.
I enjoyed Peter Gumbel’s book, and read it only after I had seen and read the many debates it aroused, and continues to arouse about the Grand ´Ecoles. Other countries have similar elite institutions which are a source of talent for public and private institutions, but their existence and any form of elitism they perpetuate does not seem draw the ire of people as much as they do here in France.